This US invasion fills a cultural vacuum in Balkans

Clinton visit to former communist state comes amid debate over role ofHollywood.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Standing outside a Benetton clothing store in downtown Ljubljana, Slovenia, Katia glances at her giggling friends and sums up what seems a widespread teenage attitude about life in this tiny former republic of Yugoslavia. "Without American movies," she says, "it would be boring."

Less than 400 miles away, America is seen principally as the leader of more than two months of just-suspended NATO airstrikes. And less than a decade after extracting itself from the crumbling federation of Yugoslavia, Slovenia has become an enclave of American popular culture.

For centuries the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled Slovenia. It joined Yugoslavia after World War I and seceded in 1991, a move that prompted violent secession movements by Croatia, Bosnia - and eventually Kosovo.

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With one of the strongest economies in Eastern Europe, a solid human-rights record, and stable democratic institutions, Slovenia's a sure bet for European Union membership. But some here point to a related challenge: developing a modern Slovenian character in an increasingly globalized world awash in things American.

For their successes, Slovenes have won the attention of the West. President Clinton is due to visit Ljubljana, the capital, later this month. But despite a strong sense of nationhood, decades of central planning and repressive state control have left this nation of 2 million with a classic post-communist cultural vacuum.

"We have no real role models in Slovenian literature or theater because for years we were under the rule of someone else," says Janez Kne, an economist and former journalist for Slovenia's national radio.

Unlike Russia, which for a time embraced American popular culture but is now turning back to things Russian, Slovenia has an economy that can't support alternative media, the kind capable of expressing Slovenian character while sustaining the interests of young people. So, Mr. Kne says, Slovenes must turn to Hollywood.

In Ljubljana, a profusion of billboard-sized movie ads set such stars as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts against the fading Baroque architecture and communist-era office buildings.

American music - from Madonna to Tammy Wynette - blares from radios and in nightclubs. Where once young people used Serbian and Croatian slang, they now roll out English jargon. Even the national currency has a familiar ring to it: the tolar.

The Pamela Anderson 'ideal'

But some Slovenes have begun questioning what they see as too easy an acceptance of American values. Leaning over a table in a Ljubljana night spot, Zala Volcic, a young Slovenian social researcher with a degree from the University of Colorado, says, "Pamela Anderson should not be the ideal woman.... We want to develop Slovenian role models."

Ms. Volcic ticks off the findings of a media habits study she and colleague Karmen Erjavec of the University of Ljubljana conducted on 10,000 Slovenian elementary students.

She says the children questioned chose American programs as their Top 5 favorites: "Beverly Hills 90210" ranked first and "Melrose Place" took second.

They also watch 20 to 36 hours of television a week, and usually begin watching television at the age of 2 or 2-1/2.

The study further found that only 3 percent of the children said their parents monitor the shows they watch.

The conclusions raised some official eyebrows. Education officials have instituted nationwide media education courses in Slovenian primary and secondary schools. Volcic hopes the programs will teach children how to critically evaluate what they see on TV and reinforce a stronger civic identity in the process.

Along with the amount of television children watch has been a reported rise in youth crime. While some observers point to a range of other possible causes, some make a TV connection. Janez Jansa is a lanky war hero and the leader of Slovenia's main opposition party, the Social Democratic Party of Slovenia (SDS).

Mr. Jansa links the rise in crime to media consumption, and the fact that parents are just beginning to talk about the impact of media on children.

"All of this is very new," he says. "We don't know all the consequences, so it is hard to make a final conclusion. But I think this is a serious problem."

Jansa points out that the cultural and intellectual elite hasn't made it a hot topic because the phenomenon is so new. But as the SDS plans its new policy platform, it has begun to consider including this issue.

Jansa considers the ubiquity of American programming to be "an alarm for Slovene cultural institutions to produce more ... Slovenian programming." He says the right kind of shows can even help the transition to democracy by providing moral instruction to the public, a job once left up to fickle communist bureaucrats.

"In the communist and socialist system, something was good one day and bad the next," he says. "There were no real values." He says that while often excessively violent, American movies "[are] better than the propaganda movies of Belgrade."

A citizen-led battle

Stefan Miljevic, a pale musician in his 20s, offers a different perspective on Slovene identity. He has just finished performing in a concert in Maribor, a city in western Slovenia.

Mr. Miljevic expresses concern that American influences have changed Slovenes' collective mentality. Since independence, he says, shows like CNN and MTV have made a "huge impact" on Slovenia's "mental space."

"We do know who we are, but we show it in a negative way ... we turn it around and say what we are not, and what other people are. It is a negative nationalism."

Others agree that politicians are not doing enough to promote Slovenian culture. In an SDS pamphlet, the opposition party claims that the current government, made up largely of communist holdovers, halted state control over culture only to try to drive the "acts and movements of the intellectual sphere ... out from the social consciousness."

If true, the task of holding Slovenia's cultural lines in an age of American-dominated media, at least for now, falls to people like Volcic. She leans back in her chair and muses: "We want to develop Slovenian citizens who would care for Slovenian citizens, and not just sell their souls to Beverly Hills."

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